V. Shantaram-A versatile genius film director from Bollywood

For Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram or V. Shantaram as we know him, learning filmcraft was indeed a very difficult task, considering that this Kolhapur boy had no formal education at all. He was born on November 18, 1901, in Maharashtra’s princely state of Kolhapur to a Jain family of very modest means, hence the lack of education.

V. Shantaram-A versatile genius film director from Bollywood
For Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram or V. Shantaram as we know him, learning filmcraft was indeed a very difficult task, considering that this Kolhapur boy had no formal education at all. He was born on November 18, 1901, in Maharashtra’s princely state of Kolhapur to a Jain family of very modest means, hence the lack of education.

V Santaram -Dr. Kontis Ki Amar Kahani
V Santaram -Dr. Kontis Ki Amar Kahani

Early in life, he was forced to take on small jobs to support his family, one of which was being a curtain-puller in a theatre called the Gandharva Natak Mandali. This was his first exposure to the film world and it had him so enthralled that he continued to do small jobs related to acting and film making, while picking up its fine points when he interacted with the top professionals of the time.

Born: Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram on November 18, 1901
Place of birth: Kolhapur, Maharashtra
Died: October 30, 1990 (aged 88) at Mumbai
Years active: 1921-1987

Early career
V. Shantaram’s film career began with him doing all sorts of odd jobs at Baburao Painter’s Maharashtra Film Co., Kolhapur. He joined this company to learn the nuances of film making and acting from Painter. In 1921, he debuted in the silent film, Surekha Haran. In 1925, he played the role of a young farmer who revolts against the system in Painter’s Savkari Pash and then went on to direct his first film in 1927, titled Netaji Palkar.

After nine years of working with the Maharashtra Film Co., he quit to start his own production house, Prabhat Films. This famous production house was formed along with four partners, V.G. Damle, S. Fatelal, K.R. Dhaiber and S.B. Kulkarni. Now, his career was well on the upswing. All his partners were thorough professionals, but did not have a solid financial background.

Prabhat Studios
However, by sheer dint of their deep knowledge of film making and their eagerness to learn, they made a success of Prabhat Studios. Together, they made successful films such as Gopal Krishna, Rani Saheba, Khooni Khanjar and Udaykal, all directed by the legend V. Shantaram.

In fact, Gopal Krishna, made in 1931, was brilliant for its times. This was when audiences loved mythologicals rather than films with social themes. Despite this, Shantaram and his partners used their ingenuity to cleverly fuse mythological drama with contemporary social themes.

At this time, silent movies were slowly but surely giving way to the new phenomenon, the talkies. This meant that Painter’s glorious days had come to an end while his juniors’ stars were on the rise. In keeping with the demands of the times, Shantaram made Prabhat’s first talkie, Ayodhya Ka Raja in 1932. This film is based on the life of Raja Harishchandra and was made to honor Dadasaheb Phalke, whose film career debuted with a film on the same theme. This film is worth seeing for its visual beauty and very strong storyline. Durga Khote was launched in this film as Rani Taramati.

Then came Amritmanthan, which he produced and directed. It tells the story of a very old society where Buddhism goes against orthodox ritualistic practices. Shantaram used this film to comment subtly on life and times in contemporary society too. This film is also important for introducing several talented artistes such as Durga Khote and Shanta Apte to a film-hungry audience. It is a milestone in Shantaram’s career for being one of his biggest hits ever.

In 1933, Shantaram made Sairandhri and especially took it to Germany’s Agfa Laboratories to be processed there in color, but the pictures turned out to be very pale. If this had not happened, this film could well have been India’s first color film.

However, on his return from Germany in 1934, he had an entirely different perspective while he shot for Amrit Manthan. This film was set in the Buddhist age and makes a strong statement against the practice of making human sacrifices. It uses several film techniques from German Expressionist cinema. Apart from all its notable achievements, this film is best remembered for its shot of the close-up of a priest’s right eye.

The following year, he moved to Pune and continued to make historicals and mythologicals, in the style of Painter. A few hits later, Shantaram wanted to experiment with the new fad of the times—the color movie. New knowledge in this area led him on a tour of Germany, where he met the most knowledgeable cinematographers of those days. Here, he learnt all he could about film craft and he used all the techniques he learnt in his films.

His interest in religion was evident in his 1935 film, Dharamatma. It was based on the life of the famous Marathi saint, Eknath, who spoke boldly against untouchability. Shantaram was asked to cut a few scenes that bore resemblance to Gandhiji’s name and his principles, but the director refused to do this. Finally, the distributors of his film made the required changes and released it.

In 1936, he made Amar Jyoti, a social commentary on a woman who fights social injustice by turning into a pirate queen. It was a completely unusual film with action and stunts. The following year, Shantaram made a film on Sant Tukaram, a film known for its simple narrative style. It was the first Indian film to be honored abroad—this one was honored at the Venice Film Festival in 1937.

Spurred by the success of Amar Jyoti and Sant Tukaram, Shantaram went on to make three of his career’s best films at Prabhat Studios. These films were Duniya Na Mane or Kunku in Marathi, the others being Aadmi and Padosi.

Duniya Na Mane (1937) is the story of a young woman who refuses to accept her marriage with an older man. However, this presents its own problems for the young woman who is now widowed and subject to widowhood, a severe punishment in orthodox Hindu society. The film ends with the husband killing himself to set his wife free of him. Shantaram tells his story as realistically as possible, with background music limited to natural sounds. It was shown at the Venice International Film Festival.

Aadmi (1939) or Manoos in Marathi is the love story of a policeman and a prostitute, and is perhaps the director’s best. When the policeman tries to bring her into mainstream society by marrying her, ghosts of her past begin to disturb her. As in Duniya Na Mane, here too, the ending of the film disturbs the viewer mentally. She goes back to her former life, thus leaving the film with a staid outlook and without a firm solution.

The film is treated very realistically and is famous for its song, Kashala Udyachi Baat. Thematically and cinematically, this film is a work of art. Besides, Shantaram added a touch of his technical newness that he imbibed from Germany to show the mental conditions of his characters.

Padosi (1941) or Shejari in Marathi is an appeal for communal harmony. In Padosi, the Hindu protagonist is played by Mazhar Khan, while Gajanan Jagirdar plays a Muslim in the film. Shantram used this platform to appeal to the people to give up bigotry and narrow sectarian feelings.

After making this trilogy of films, Shantaram left Prabhaat Studios in 1942, when the country was in the grip of the Quit India Movement and started his own studios, Rajkamal Kala Mandir in Mumbai. Until then, he was Chief Producer of the Film Advisory Board (FAB) and had made a few films for this body, but when Gandhiji proclaimed ‘Do or Die’ in 1942, Shantaram resigned. Under his new banner, he first made Shakuntala (1943), in which he launched the beautiful Jayashree whom he later married, though he was married at the time.

Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani
In 1946, he made the film he is best remembered for—Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani. It was also the best film that he and his wife Jayashree worked in together. It was based on K. A. Abbas’ short novel titled And One Did Not Come Back which tells the real life story of Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis who was part of a team of doctors in China during World War II. He was captured by the Japanese and died while curing an epidemic.

The film is entirely patriotic and was an anti-Japanese war film in content. It had very effective nationalistic rhetoric which ends with the hero’s speech at his death in which he describes to his wife what she will see when she returns home. It was exhibited at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in 1947.

Marathi Tamasha and Lavani
In 1946, he made Jeevan Yatra and the following year, Lokshahir Ramjoshi. This was the first of a line of films depicting the Marathi Tamasha style, which went down very well with the masses. By now, his film making style had matured to a great extent and he was able to capture the Tamasha art form in his films.

His other very successful Tamasha films included Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955), Navrang (1959), Sehra (1963) and Jal Bin Machchli Nritya Bin Bijli (1971). All of them were rich in classical dances and starred Sandhya who was an accomplished dancer.

In 1951, Shantaram ventured into the Marathi dance form, called Lavani, in his film Amar Bhoopali (1951). Here, the Honaji Bala’s Lavani-style music and its very famous classic song Ghanshyam Sundara Shirdara brought in the audiences to Shantaram’s films while also subtly inculcating regional pride in Marathi art forms.

With his film Maya Machhindra, actor-turned-director Shantaram came out with an exciting and bold story, based on the story adapted from a Tantric legend about a sage by the name of Machhindranath and his teachings about reality and desire and their illusionary nature. The film begins with the sage entering a kingdom of women who hate all men, but instead of being killed by them, he ends up marrying the queen and so bids goodbye to a life of celibacy.

Appalled by these happenings, his student Gorakh goes to the kingdom to rescue the sage. But he too is caught and tortured by the women. Finally, it is revealed that this was but an illusion set up by the guru to test his disciple. The Spring festival depicted in this film is its special feature.

Spurred by the success of his earlier films in Tamasha style, Shantaram went on to make Pinjra in 1972. This time round too, the film starred Sandhya, and is the story of revenge between an upright village teacher and a Tamasha artiste who, in the guise of love, involves the unsuspecting teacher in a murder. The ethical teacher is caught in a web of deceit and murder without realizing it or a pinjra or cage.

This was Shantaram’s last movie of any significance and was based on the classic by Josef von Sternberg, titled, The Blue Angel, played by Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings. Here, Shantaram adapts the story to the Indian milieu by bringing in the robust folk dance of Maharashtra, the Tamasha.

Dance epic of India—Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje
Before he made his dance epic Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje in 1955, he also made Teen Batti Char Raasta (1953), Subah Ka Tara (1954) and Nightmare in Red China (1955). Made in 1957, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje was Shantaram’s first color film and a runaway box-office hit. With this film, he proves once more that he is a master of his craft as he deftly combines an excellent screenplay with Indian dance. He uses this very fluid platform—film—to convey the message that one’s culture must be preserved and not frittered away by adopting Western manners.

This is a tribute to Indian classical dances and is a veritable feast for all dance lovers. Sandhya performs Kathak dances, Bharatnatyam and Manipuri while a Shiv Tandav sequence is also one of the film’s highlights. Though this film was not the critics’ favorite, the public loved it, and it ran at Mumbai’s theatres for two years and more. He won the  Filmfare Best Director Award for this film in 1957, and the President’s Gold Medal for the Best Feature Film of 1955.

Social themes once again
In 1957, Shantaram returned to making films on social themes with his Do Ankhen Barah Haath, which he not only directed but also acted in. A brilliant film, it narrates the story of a jailor who sets up a farm with the help of six murderers. He tries to reinstate them into society, considering the murderers are reformed and simple, much to the chagrin of nearby village folk who do not like their presence.

This film is remembered for its story, cinematography, performances. The actor-director makes use of neo-expressionist imagery, and critics often say that this film is closest in technique to his trilogy of films made under the Prabhat banner. This film is worth watching for its trademark imagery and fantastic use of black-and-white photography. Even its music is haunting, particularly the scene of prisoners shown singing the bhajan, Ai malik tere bande hum, written by Bharat Vyas and composed by Vasant Desai.

For its uniqueness of style, form and content, it won several national and international accolades, including the National Film Award for Best Film in 1958. It also won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, the Samuel Goldwyn Award for Best Foreign Film and the Indian President’s Gold Medal for the Best Feature of 1957. In 1958, this film was exhibited at the San Francisco Film Festival.

Emboldened by this success, Shantaram went on to make a dance-cum-fantasy in 1959, titled Navrang or the nine colors of life. This film is a product of all the colors that Shantaram saw in his blindness, caused in an accident on the sets of his earlier film, Do Ankhen Barah Haath.

This film is very colorful, though his characters are stark black and white. It tells the story of a man and his family and his cultural ties which run deep. Here, an artist, in his fantasies glamorizes his wife to the extent of seeing her as his muse. However, Shantaram weaves together a likeable story with songs and dances in Tamasha style, which held his audiences spellbound for a long, long time.

He gave them everything they would love to see—flashy colors, royal courts, rich costumes, fantastic locales, palace intrigues and the wonderful mind of a poet. What a rich kaleidoscope of entertainment and food for thought! Again, wonderfully acted by Sandhya, dances included.

After this wonderful song-dance medley, he also made Sehra (1963), Stree (1961), Geet Gaaya Pattharonne (1964) and some others. Of these, Geet Gaya Pattharonne was special to him because he launched the film career of his daughter Rajshree as a heroine who was paired opposite the debutant Jitendra.

Rajshree proved to be a consummate dancer rather than actress and being a classy woman, she opened the floodgates of Indian fashion to the West. This film has the characteristic vibrant colors that Shantaram appreciated, which he cleverly fuses with bold and dramatic choreography.

Though he continued to make many more movies, two outstanding films of his career are Boond Jo Ban Gayi Moti and Jal Bin Machhli Nritya Bin Bijli. Of these, the former is a village love story, and is known for its excellent music, including the lilting Hare Bhare Vasundhare Neela Neela Yeh Gagan. Jitendra and Rajshri star in this one.

Jal Bin Machhli Nritya Bin Bijli (1971) is the story of a girl who is passionate about her dance and how she fights every problem to celebrate the fusion of the two great arts, dance and music. Shantaram proves that he is the master of technique and execution and that he was indeed ahead of his times. That music and dance can transcend all earthly desires, life and death, human relations and materialism forms the crux of this film. Dance is spiritual, is the message of this movie.

In 1986, he made Jhanjaar, his last film. All in all, he had an illustrious film career spanning 60 years during which he won not just the hearts of the people but also national and international acclaim. He was quick to understand and use the medium of films as a means of social change.

No. 1 a number of times
•    His Ranisahiba (1930) was the first children’s film in India.
•    He was the first to use the trolley for his film Chandrasena (1931).
•    He made India’s first color film, Sairandhri (1933).
•    He was the first director to use a telephoto lens for his film Amrit Manthan (1934).
•    He was the first director to use the technique of animation in his film Jambukaka (1935).
•    He was the first director to us back-lit projection in his film Amar Jyoti (1936).
•    His films were the first among Indian directors to be exhibited abroad—Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani and Shakuntala.

Acclaim and awards
Charlie Chaplin, who saw his Marathi film Manoos, liked it very much.

Shantaram won several awards in his career, the highest honor being the Indian film industry’s highest honor, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, in 1985. In 1992, he was honored with the Padma Vibhushan. For being an outstanding Jain, he was honored with the Jain Samaj Ratna award.

To honor Shantaram’s efforts, the Central government, the Maharashtra State government and the V. Shantaram Motion Picture Scientific Research and Cultural Foundation, jointly instituted the V. Shantaram Award for the Best Director of Hindi films. This award is presented every year on November 18, the Shantaram’s birth anniversary.

He was also chairperson of the Children’s Film Society in the 1970s.

Berlin International Film Festival 1958
•      Won, OCIC Award:     for Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957)
•      Won, Silver Berlin Bear:     Special Prize for Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957)
•      Nominated, Golden Berlin Bear:     for Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957)

Cannes Film Festival 1952
•      Nominated, Grand Prize of the Festival:     for The Immortal Song (1951)

Filmfare Awards 1957
•      Won, Filmfare Award:     Best Director for Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955)
•      Won, Filmfare Award:     Best Film for Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955)


Writings
His autobiography, Shantaram, was published in Hindi and Marathi.

His biography, V Shantaram: The Legacy of the Royal Lotus, was written by Kiran Shantaram, Sanjit Narwekar. This genius director, scriptwriter, actor and creative person also inspired Shampa Banerjee to write his biography in her book, Profiles, five film-makers from India: V. Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Mrinal Sen, Guru Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak.

Personal life
He was married three times—first, with Vimla, then to actress Jayashree, and lastly with Sandhya. Jayshree bore him two children—film star Rajshree and a son Kiran Kumar, a Marathi film director and sheriff of Mumbai.

His third wife was his co-star Sandhya, with whom he made Do Aankhen Barah Haath, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje and Navrang. From this marriage too, he had two children—Prabhat Kumar and Madhura Pandit.

V. Shantaram is a legend with an exhaustive body of impressive work. His film making techniques and the themes his films explored are completely absent today. He holds an important place in the annals of Hindi films and inspires every newcomer to the Hindi film world. He is truly one of the pillars of Hindi cinema.

On October 30, 1990, the creative genius, V. Shantaram died in Mumbai at age 89. His films, however, continue to inspire and inject enthusiasm in anyone who cares for a free and modern society, free of all social ills.

Filmography

  • Fire – Director      1986
  • The Sea Wolves – Services Supplier (India) (as V. Shantaram)      1980
  • Chaani – Director      1977
  • Chaani – Director      1977
  • Chandanachi Choli Anga Anga Jali – Director      1975
  • Pinjra – Director      1972
  • Pinjra – Director      1972
  • Jal Bin Machhli Nritya Bin Bijli – Director (as V. Shantaram), Producer (as V. Shantaram)      1971
  • The Blessing – Dedicatee (as V. Shantaram)      1968
  • Boond Jo Ban Gayi Moti – Director (as V. Shantaram)      1967
  • Ladki Sahyadri Ki – Director, Producer      1966
  • Geet Gaaya Pattharonne – Director (as V. Shantaram)      1964
  • Sehra – Director (as V. Shantaram), Writer (screenplay), Producer (as V. Shantaram), Editor (as V. Shantaram)      1963
  • Stree – Director (as V. Shantaram), Actor      1961
  • Navrang – Director (as V. Shantaram), Writer (screenplay) (as V. Shantaram)      1959
  • Do Ankhen Barah Haath – Director (as V. Shantaram), Adinath, the young warden (as V. Shantaram)      1957
  • Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje – Director (as V. Shantaram)      1955
  • Nightmare in Red China – Director (principal footage), Dr. Dwarkanath S. Kotnis      1955
  • Great Soul – Director      1954
  • Subah Ka Tara – Director, Actor (as V. Shantaram)      1954
  • Teen Batti Char Raasta – Director      1953
  • Parchhaiyan – Director (as V. Shantaram), Actor (as V. Shantaram)      1952
  • The Immortal Song – Director      1951
  • Dahej – Director      1950
  • Your Country – Director      1949
  • Lok Shahir Ram Joshi – Director (as V. Shantaram)      1947
  • Matwala Shair Ram Joshi – Director (as V. Shantaram)      1947
  • Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani – Director, Dwarkanath Kotnis      1946
  • Mali – Director      1944
  • Shakuntala – Director      1943
  • Padosi – Director (as V. Shantaram)      1941
  • Shejari – Director      1941
  • Life’s for Living: Aadmi – Director (as V. Shantaram)      1939
  • Manoos – Director (as V. Shantaram)      1939
  • Duniya Na Mane – Director      1937
  • Kunku – Director      1937
  • Amar Jyoti – Director      1936
  • Chandrasena – Director (as V. Shantaram)      1935
  • The Holy Year – Director      1935
  • The Holy Year – Director      1935
  • Amrit Manthan – Director (as Shantaram), Writer (dialogue)      1934
  • Seeta’s Wedding – Director      1934
  • Sairandhri – Director      1933
  • Sinhagad – Director      1933
  • Agnikankan: Branded Oath – Director      1932
  • Ayodhyecha Raja – Director, Editor      1932
  • Maya Machhindra – Director      1932
  • Chandrasena – Director      1931
  • Khooni Khanjar – Director      1930
  • Rani Saheba – Director      1930
  • Thunder of the Hills – Director, Shivaji      1930
  • Gopal Krishna – Director      1929
  • Netalji Palkar – Director      1927
  • Savkari Pash – Actor      1925
  • Sati Padmini – Actor      1924
  • Sinhagad – Actor (as V. Shantaram)      1923
  • Surekha Haran – Lord Krishna      1921
By Mithi Chinoy

Buy Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani – V.Shantaram’s Classic Collection (Original Hindi Version with English Subtitle)

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